Egypt’s Democratic outlaws

It’s deja vu for the Muslim Brotherhood and a failure of the democratic process for Egypt, writes scholar

Egypt Protests Intensify As Army Deadline Approaches
The protest to ouster the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi sets a precedent that bodes poorly for the Egypt's democratic future. [Getty Images]

The Muslim Brotherhood has been here before.

In the fall of 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood put its faith in the revolutionary transition in place after the 1952 military coup, backing the wrong horse in General Muhammad Naguib, and was ultimately outmaneuvered by Nasser. In one fell swoop, the organisation was outlawed, its offices burned down by angry mobs, its newspapers shut down, and its leaders imprisoned, executed, or exiled.

For the next two decades, the group was virtually absent from society and subjected to an intensive vilification campaign that portrayed it as an alien, subversive, and violent force within Egypt that had to be eradicated. It was only after his suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood that Nasser consolidated his control of the Egyptian state and society.

The group re-emerged in the mid-1970s, rebuilt its organisational structure, recruited a new generation of Islamic activists, and steadily reclaimed its mantle as the country’s leading social organisation. It continued to thrive in spite of major periodic crackdowns and the emergence of anti-state violence by rival Islamist groups into the mid-1990s.

Given its propensity for accommodation rather than confrontation, and occasional engagement with the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was well positioned to play a significant role in a post-authoritarian political order. As such, it was not much of a surprise that Egypt’s first democratically elected president came out of the nation’s longest standing and best-organised oppositional force.

Perhaps one of the many tragedies of these latest events is that we have lost, possibly forever, the opportunity to witness the Muslim Brotherhood humbled through its preferred method of political contestation

But if Mohamed Morsi’s rise to the presidency was a remarkable achievement for a once outlawed opposition movement, his sudden fall at the hands of a military coup backed by a mass revolt in some ways signifies an unprecedented low point in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood. Not only does it face the prospect of enduring banishment at the hands of a cold and calculating military regime yet again, it will do so to the thunderous applause of millions of Egyptians.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are undoubtedly responsible for much of the unpopularity they generated over the course of the post-Mubarak transition. There is something to be said, however, of the ways in which large swaths of the Egyptian public seem to have internalised decades of demonisation of the group by the former regime and its propaganda arms, which continued to operate unabated throughout Morsi’s term in office.

It is now clear that the Muslim Brotherhood, which judged its own reputation solely by its ability to win at the ballot box, underestimated the extent to which a significant number of Egyptians had developed a healthy reserve of revulsion for the group, irrespective of its political performance.

The visceral and disproportionate reaction with which many of Morsi’s admittedly imprudent policies were met should have alerted him early on that his presidency would be held to a far higher standard than if any of his political rivals had won. The intense presidential race against Mubarak-era remnant Ahmed Shafiq, which Morsi won only by a slim margin, was a clear sign that there were millions of Egyptians who preferred a symbol of the former regime over its chief victims.

In apprehending Morsi late Wednesday evening, reportedly on charges of escaping prison during the 25 January revolution, the Egyptian military has fulfilled one of Shafiq’s most notorious campaign promises.

The road to Egypt’s unceremonious disposal of its president was fraught with distrust, alienation, incompetence, and gross miscalculation on the part of all parties involved. When it became clear that the popular revolution called for by millions of Egyptians in early 2011 had given way to a military-led transition to a gradually reformed Egyptian state, that was to graft democratic institutions onto pre-existing authoritarian ones, the Muslim Brotherhood and most other opposition groups accepted the parameters.

With the constitution suspended, the nation’s political factions consented (however begrudgingly) to the ad hoc nature of the transition. They competed repeatedly in elections to establish their legitimacy, replacing that of the ruling military council, which had not ceased its campaign of repression and continued to shield leading culprits from the old regime from public accountability.

Even as they disagreed with the electoral outcomes of these steps toward democratic governance, millions of Egyptians acknowledged the necessity of the process and the importance of a common frame of reference to arbitrate their differences, especially given the growing polarization across society and the spectre of military rule hovering above.

Even after the Muslim Brotherhood alienated the remaining revolutionary forces, contributed its fair share to the deepening social divisions, and proved unable to deliver immediate results in its brief time in power, clear mechanisms existed to take the group to task.

The millions who turned out for Morsi’s overthrow could have proven enough to reject his proposed constitution during last December’s national referendum. Failing that, they could have mobilised their energies toward upcoming parliamentary elections, won the majority, and proceeded to amend the constitution and empower a prime minister to take on a greater share of policymaking than Morsi – a key feature of the reviled constitution, incidentally.

Of course the opposition did none of these things, passing up multiple opportunities to put the Muslim Brotherhood on its heels through mutually accepted means that the group would have no choice but to accept.

Perhaps one of the many tragedies of these latest events is that we have lost, possibly forever, the opportunity to witness the Muslim Brotherhood humbled through its preferred method of political contestation. In sharp contrast to the present scenario, that development would have come with numerous advantages, not the least of which is the continued affirmation of democracy as the governing principle among all of Egypt’s political factions, and the continued semblance of unity, however fractious, in the face of relentless efforts to subvert the nation’s transition from authoritarianism.

Inside Story: Egypt – The army takes over

It remains to be seen whether those elements have succeeded in destroying Egypt’s still nascent revolution but it is clear that, in forcibly removing an elected president from power, anti-democratic forces have won the day. The alarming speed and efficiency with which the military moved to repress the Muslim Brotherhood in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s events suggests a high degree of premeditation and coordination. Consumed by their euphoria, the anti-Morsi movement has failed to see the dangerous path that lay ahead.

If contending with a fierce and unyielding counter-revolution was already a seemingly insurmountable task for a revolutionary movement representing virtually all segments of Egyptian society, it will be doubly so with the impending exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Contrary to the wishful thinking on the part of the anti-Morsi opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters and sympathizers will not be boarding a spacecraft and departing for some alien planet anytime soon. Despite all attempts to paint them as foreign invaders, they are part and parcel of Egyptian society and their marginalisation will only serve the interests of those wishing a return to the repressive politics of the old order.

Moreover, the ruling military council’s decision to suspend the constitution and rule by decree after Mubarak’s overthrow was one of its most widely detested decisions and served as a battle cry for protests against it. Yet it was cheers that greeted the defence minister’s announcement Wednesday that Egypt would be once again without a constitution until further notice.

If the military rulers proved more than capable of abusing their authority in the face of widespread opposition, they are far more likely to do so with the belief that their suspension of the constitution has popular support. It will also be critical to observe the emerging ruling dynamic, given that several of the military’s civilian partners have no legal basis to speak of, and instead owe their newfound positions of power to their military benefactors.

It is quite a thing to see Mohamed ElBaradei reject popular elections conducted under military rule, only to accept a direct appointment to a governing body by none other than the military rulers.

Among the lessons of the first transitional period was that people power, while potentially the ultimate arbiter of the revolution, is also mercurial. When the dust settles on a mass protest movement, it is the political entities whose democratic credentials are very much in doubt that are poised to determine the shape of the Egyptian state.

With the previous process now entirely undone, the same movement that cast out a crucial member of Egypt’s post-authoritarian order now stands tasked with ensuring a future that secures the rights of all to shape their country’s future. It is not off to the best of starts.

Abdullah Al-Arian is an Assistant Professor of History at Wayne State University, where he specialises in the modern Middle East. 

You can follow Abdullah on twitter @anhistorian